Opiates: Hillbilly Heaven or God’s Own Medicine?

I offer an essay written by a student in a beginning college English class. I was moved by the story she had to tell of how the drug warriors inflicted so much suffering on her terminally ill boyfriend and on her. Her manner is reserved but it the anguish comes through loud and clear.

These days the documentaries and media reports are hard to miss. Opiate and opioid abuse has become epidemic in many of our poorer states. In an attempt to get high, people have begun illegally buying prescription pain medications such as Oxycontin, and creating new and unusual ways to snort, shoot and shove in to places it was never intended to go.  According to the media the drug dealers are no longer the creeps on the street corner pushing to kids, but rather the pharmaceutical companies, patient advocacy groups and doctors who have managed to improve on and promote what many are convinced is a curse on society.I guess you can’t blame the media for telling a good story complete with tragedy, multibillion dollar villains, and clever names such as “hillbilly heroine” for this country’s current drug of choice. What bothers me is how one sided these stories have become. Rarely do you see the people who are in so much chronic physical or emotional pain that these types of drugs can be life sustaining despite the physical addiction that comes with it. I guess the media does not find these people sensational enough to focus on, but when the dust settles they will likely be the ones who end up losing the most from this “epidemic”. Thanks to our fears and the media that plays on them the majority of Americans have been convinced that all drug addiction is bad, and should be avoided at all cost even when it can ease the severe pain of some. I have seen the good that these strong pain relievers can offer the right people and would like to explain the other side to the opiate’s story.

The source of our modern day opiates is the opium poppy, a plant whose existence and use actually predates written history. Often called, “God’s own medicine” ever since people discovered that it was more than just a pretty face; mankind has had a love-hate relationship with the opium poppy. Similar to the way our endorphins work the active ingredients in opium trigger the opioid receptors in the brain, central nervous system and throughout the body.  This creates not only pain relief, but also a strong sense of pleasure, and well being. For many who are in severe pain these results can bring life to a person who otherwise would be forced to live in a world without relief. Several years ago I knew little about opiates, and like most people I believed their use was only for those who simply no longer cared. It was not until I met my boyfriend that I understood what a positive effect it could have for some.

My boyfriend Dave lived with chronic pain. His doctor had put him on a regular supply of Vicodin which helped to not only relieve that pain, but also gave him energy, so he no longer had to spend all his time in bed. Unfortunately when opiates are taken regularly the body will build up a tolerance, and physical addiction will develop. A good doctor will understand that their patient will eventually need an increase in their dosage, and no patient should ever be put in a position where they are forced to withdraw abruptly from their medication without professional help. Well that is the way it is supposed to work isn’t it? Dave’s doctor either was not aware of how addictions can form, or more likely was simply afraid to increase the dose due to the scrutiny put on doctors who are thought to be too generous with the pain medications they prescribe. When we finally accepted that his doctor hands were tied we went looking for an alternative.

I will never forget the first time we went to buy Vicodin off the street. There were actually people who had walked straight out of the hospital still attached to IV poles selling their prescription drugs. Heroin addicts hung out on the corners trying to fund their habits by helping newbies like us connect with the right people. Sometimes they were very helpful most of the time not, but Dave always tipped them anyway knowing that the pain from withdrawal is still the same regardless of how you get there. This was an end station for many. With the risk of arrest, or assault running high, most of the people there had nothing left to lose. The fact that my boyfriend had to spend the final years of his life going through so much to get some relief will always anger me. It nearly ruined him financially, and the stress alone likely took time off his already short life. Dave was a person who believed you should always work hard to get ahead, and play by the rules. He did what he could to help others, but when the time came there was no one there willing, or able to help him.

I would never underestimate the power of opium, and the drugs it has produced. Call it what you wish: “hillbilly heroine” or “God’s own medicine” — this is a drug that can give life just as fast as it can take it away. I am sure that some will argue, where is the line drawn? If our laws were to allow easier access to opiates wouldn’t most of the addicts simply claim that their use is medical? I guess if we lived in a perfect world a well-informed adult would be allowed to decide for themselves what substances they put inside their body, and accept responsibility for the choices they have made. We clearly do not live in such a world, so the next best thing is to make sure that the people who have a legitimate reason to take these drugs will still have access to them.

My ultimate fear is that with so much controversy surrounding them, opiates will eventually be made illegal. People like my boyfriend have enough challenges without having to spend all of their time and finances chasing down a drug that they should have legal access to.  Maybe it’s time to turn the typical Oxycontin story on its head, and shine a light on the other side. If people can learn to stop thinking in black and white maybe then our medical community will finally be able to do their job, and start offering the support and resources that these people are entitled to.

3 thoughts on “Opiates: Hillbilly Heaven or God’s Own Medicine?

  1. Huge difference between addiction and dependence. To a layperson, they are one in the same, but to someone that has ever needed GOM there is a difference.

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